The Duel that Wasn’t; Where the Cardinal’s Guards are Taught a Lesson;
A Handy Guide to the Taverns of Paris
D’Artagnan knew he was going to die.
It was April 1625 and the spring sun, fierce and blazing, shone like an unblinking eye over the bustling city of Paris. Henri D’Artagnan, aged seventeen, a slim, muscular young man with olive skin, dark hair and piercing black eyes, had arrived in town just the day before.
Now, under the noon sun, he stood outside the convent of the Barefoot Carmelites, a religious house situated in a conveniently deserted spot on the outskirts of town.
Around him spread fields of green wheat. The wind being still and no breeze stirring the sheaves, the only sound was the drowsy droning of insects, drunk with midday languor and heat.
And D’Artagnan thought this was the last day of his life.
If he weren’t himself, if he were not the only son of nobleman Francois D’Artagnan, a hardened veteran soldier, D’Artagnan could have turned and taken off running through those fields, relying on his young, agile legs to get him away from death.
His mind cringed at such an unworthy thought.
His opponent, with whom his sword was crossed, scraped the sword lightly along the length of D’Artagnan’s. Just enough to gain the young man’s attention.
And D’Artagnan turned towards him, at the same time that his opponent’s second, who served as their judge in this case, dropped the white handkerchief signaling the beginning of combat.
His opponent came at D’Artagnan like a tiger, his sword pressing D’Artagnan close and demanding all of the young man’s concentration.
The man was called Athos, and he fought like a veteran duelist. Which he was, being one of the older and more experienced and — as far as D’Artagnan could determine — one of the most feared members of his majesty Louis XIII’s corps of musketeers. Other things D’Artagnan had heard, once he’d given himself the trouble of checking: That the man had the personal friendship of Monsieur de Treville. That he was of noble birth. That Athos was a nom-de-guerre, picked up to hide disgrace or guilt.
Athos attacked, driving the young man back and back and back, till D’Artagnan’s shoulders were solidly against the white-washed wall of the convent and only his quick wit and quicker reflexes permitted him to step sideways and avoid being skewered.
D’Artagnan flitted and skipped, danced away from trouble and contorted away from tight spots, but his mind became oddly detached.
His body moved and seemed to think with a reasoning of its own, while it parried and thrust, and made Athos back away. Meanwhile D’Artagnan’s mind — what his mother used to call his quick and lively mind — had gone away, to some place at the back of himself. Some place away from the battlefield, where it could do its thinking.
When Henri D’Artagnan had left the paternal abode, his father had given him only one substantive piece of advice. And that was that he fight often, that he fight well and that he never tolerate any insult from anyone but the king or the cardinal who was, truth be told, as powerful as any king.
Henri had tried to follow his father’s advice and, on the road to Paris, in the small town of Meung, had challenged a nobleman who laughed at his attire and horse. This had cost him dearly, as his opponent had his servants hit Henri from behind. While Henri was unconscious, the stranger had stolen Henri’s letter of recommendation to Monsieur de Treville. The letter that would have got him into the musketeers this very day.
But I don’t learn, do I? D’Artagnan thought to himself, as he pushed hard with his sword arm, forcing Athos’s sword away, shoving the musketeer back at the same time.
Athos fell away and tripped and bent down upon his knee.
I had to challenge three musketeers for a duel today. Three. Musketeers. Today, D’Artagnan thought, as he jumped nimbly back, ready to parry Athos’s next thrust.
No, he didn’t learn. He’d continued following his father’s advice, until he’d managed to challenge the three men that the rest of the corps called the three inseparables: Athos, Porthos and Aramis. One of whom would kill him today.
D’Artagnan’s mind was so preoccupied with its gloomy thoughts that he didn’t at first realize that Athos hadn’t got up from his position, half-bent over his knee.
“Monsieur,” he said, when he did notice it. “Monsieur, if it would suit you to adjourn our appointment to another time….”
He noticed Athos’s hand pressed hard at his right side, and he remembered the scene, that very morning, in Monsieur de Treville’s office, where an obviously wounded and ill Athos had come in to present himself to his captain and to deflect Monsieur de Treville’s anger at all of the three musketeers who’d been bested in a skirmish with the cardinal’s guards.
“Monsieur, if you are in too great a pain…,” D’Artagnan said. He’d got in this duel with Athos by careening against the musketeer and making him bleed. And failing to apologize sufficiently for the injury he’d caused.
But Athos only shook his head. He took a deep breath, audible in the midday stillness, and he rose slowly from his knee. “It’s nothing,” he said, his face ashen. “It is nothing. I didn’t want to distress you with the sight of blood you haven’t drawn.” A red stain showed on the side of his doublet. He changed his sword to his left hand. “If you don’t mind, I will fight with my left hand, though. It will not put me at a disadvantage, as I can use either hand to equal effect. But it might be harder for you to defend yourself.”
D’Artagnan nodded. He knew he would die anyway. And if he was going to die, perhaps it would be best if it was at Athos’s hands. Of his three potential opponents, he liked and admired Athos more than the other two. It was no dishonor to be killed by such a man.
Athos straightened and pulled back a stray lock of pitch black hair, which contrasted glaringly with his alabaster-pale complexion.
D’Artagnan had heard that Athos was considered handsome by many men and even more women in Paris. This opinion baffled D’Artagnan.
Athos’s face was spare, with high cheekbones and intense, eyes burning with zeal. The rest of his features, precisely drawn and finely sculpted, made the man look less like a living being and more like those caryatides of Greece and Rome — columns given human form and forever holding aloft the white marble roof of a temple or palace.
Athos’s character, like his appearance, seemed as spare, as certain, as controlled as those columns. Rightly or not, he gave the impression of a man who served a cause greater than his own whims, purer than his own advancement.
And this, D’Artagnan thought as Athos raised his sword, was what D’Artagnan would have liked to be — if he ever got to live beyond his present seventeen years.
Aramis, Athos’s second and D’Artagnan’s next arranged opponent, stepped up. He was a blonde man, so dainty-looking that one might fail to notice he was almost as tall as Athos and as muscular. Accounted a gallant by all who knew him, he was said to be popular with the ladies and rumored to be entertaining duchesses and princesses by the score.
D’Artagnan, who had challenged him to a duel over an argument started on a point of honor, had at first thought him just a dandy and nothing more. But Aramis’s bright green eyes showed such a keen appreciation for the irony of D’Artagnan’s situation, that perhaps there was more to him.
As he stepped up, picking up his white handkerchief from the ground where it had lain, he said, “You must restart the duel.”
D’Artagnan noticed that Athos was very pale still, his skin tinged with the grey of a man fighting extreme pain, and realized that Athos’s old fashioned Spanish-style doublet was laced tightly over his musketeer’s tunic. “I would not object if you undo the ties on your doublet, since the sun is so devilishly hot.”
But Athos shook his head. “I thank you for your courtesy,” he said, “but really, I’m afraid if I do it will restart the bleeding. The wound is bothering me.”
“Do not misunderstand me; I am eager to cross swords with you,” D’Artagnan said. “But if you wish to wait and perhaps drink something for your present comfort…”
Athos smiled, a flash of genuine amusement. “Your sentiment does you credit, but I believe in collecting my debts promptly and drinking afterwards. And then, it is not the first time I’ve fought while wounded.” He shifted his feet and tilted the upper half of his body forward, baring his teeth slightly, as if allowing the animal to peer out of his noble features.
“Come, come,” Porthos spoke, from where he stood by the white wall of the convent, hands the size of hams folded over the guard of a very substantial sword. A redheaded giant, he dwarfed other men with the size of his lean, muscular body. Each of his arms looked to be the size of D’Artagnan’s thigh, each of his legs like an oak tree trunk. And yet he gave the impression of suppleness, of not a wasted ounce on his huge frame. “You are all talk. Less talk and more fighting. Remember, Athos, he owes me satisfaction after you and Aramis have your turns. He offended me most horribly on a matter of fashion.”
Did D’Artagnan fancy that a smile crossed Aramis’s and Athos’s lips, when Porthos spoke?
Aramis raised his eyebrows and, still holding his handkerchief aloft, turned towards Porthos. “When you wish to be so rude, you should speak for yourself only, Porthos. I have no objection to the noble and proper sentiments these gentlemen express. Indeed, I will gladly listen to them for as long as necessary, before they feel it fit to cross swords.”
And now another flinch of remorse came to join D’Artagnan’s regret that he would die so early, leaving so much untasted of life’s joys: that he would never get to know these men better. There was such an easy camaraderie between the three of them, so devoid of the formality of most friendships, that he imagined they could have been his friends.
“Only,” Porthos said, pulling a large red handkerchief from his sleeve and mopping at his forehead with it, “it’s too blazing hot.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Athos said, and leaned forward, displaying his teeth, again, in that expression that was more animal threat than human smile, “for we are ready.” He pushed his sword against D’Artagnan’s and said, “En garde,” between clenched teeth.
Aramis dropped the scarf.
A throat was cleared, nearby, neither by Aramis nor by Porthos.
Their swords still crossed, D’Artagnan and Athos turned to look. Five men stood near them — so near that they could only have approached unnoticed while the musketeers and D’Artagnan were distracted with talk and worry for Athos’s wound. All of them wore uniforms similar to those of the musketeers, but where the musketeers wore blue, their knee breeches, tunics and plumed hats were bright red, like freshly spilled blood.
They were guards of the cardinal, sworn rivals of the Musketeers, their enemies in a thousand brawls, a million street skirmishes.
“Well, well,” said the leading guard, who had a suntanned face and a Roman nose. “What have we here? Dueling Musketeers? What? In open and defiant contravention of all the edicts against dueling?” He smiled unpleasantly, revealing a wealth of very large, yellowed teeth. “I’m afraid we’ll have to arrest the lot of you.”
“Leave us alone, Jussac,” Athos said, without turning to look, his sword still crossed with D’Artagnan’s. “I promise you if we found you in the like amusement we’d sit back and let you proceed. Enjoy and amuse yourselves, have the profit of our injuries with none of the pain.”
Jussac smiled wider. “That’s as it may be, Monsieur Athos. But the thing is there is an edict against dueling and our master, the cardinal, wants laws obeyed.”
Athos lowered his sword. He turned to Jussac and, with an air of strained patience, said, “Nothing would please me more than to oblige you. But, you see, our captain, Monsieur de Treville, has forbidden us from being arrested.”
Jussac sighed, in turn. He lifted his hat and scratched under it at his sweat-soaked hair. “Think about it,” he said. “There are only three of you, one of you wounded. Three of you and a child who was dueling you. If you force us to fight you, they will say it’s murder.”
The three musketeers formed a circle, from within which their worried voices reached D’Artagnan’s ears.
“I’m afraid he’s right, you know,” Aramis said. “There are only three of us, one of us wounded. And there are five of them: Jussac, Brisac and Cahusac, the three fiercest fighters in the Guards, and two of their companions. They will slaughter us.”
Athos paled yet further and glared, his zealous blue eyes seeming to flame. His features hardened into a harsher pose of dignity. “I would rather die than appear before Monsieur de Treville defeated again.”
“Me too,” Porthos said.
D’Artagnan remembered the scorching reproach that Monsieur de Treville had inflicted on the three musketeers that morning. Everyone waiting in the captain’s antechamber had heard it. He didn’t blame the three for not wishing to face such humiliation again.
“Very well, then,” Aramis said. He straightened a little and squared his shoulders. “We’ll die here.”
“You, the child,” Jussac said, pointing at D’Artagnan. “Save yourself. We’ll allow you to go.”
D’Artagnan looked at the three musketeers who were so calm, so resigned, gallantly preparing themselves for death rather than facing dishonor. He looked over at Jussac, who smiled benevolently at him, showing long yellow teeth.
He pushed himself into the musketeers’ circle, shoving his sweaty face between Aramis’s and Porthos’s shoulders. “You are wrong,” he said. “When you say there are only three of you. I count four of us.”
They looked back at him, and for a moment it looked as though Porthos were on the verge of asking who the fourth one might be. But, before he could, Athos smiled. “You’re a child,” he said. “And someday you’ll be a man I’d be proud to call a friend. But right now you’re a boy. And this is suicide. Our chosen death. Save yourself.”
“No,” D’Artagnan said, his certainty growing with the rebuff. “No. I’ll stay and fight by your side.”
“But, you’re not a musketeer,” Aramis said. “Why would you want to die with us?”
“Though I don’t wear a musketeer uniform,” D’Artagnan said. “In my heart I am a musketeer. And though I might only be able to give you very little help, if I leave and save my life, I’ll never be able to live with myself.”
For a moment Aramis stared at him, Porthos frowned at him, and Athos furrowed his brow as if in deep thought.
And then Athos smiled. “You’re right,” he said. “There are indeed four of us. Athos, Porthos, Aramis and—your name, my friend?”
“D’Artagnan,” D’Artagnan answered, as his heart hammered faster and faster in his chest, and once more he was sure he was going to die.
This time he knew he was going to die at the end of the guards’ swords. But he would die next to musketeers. He would die almost a musketeer. His father would be proud.
“Well, then, Athos, Porthos, Aramis and D’Artagnan. One for all and all for one. If death is to come for us, let us not keep her waiting. Let us go out and meet her halfway, like gallants, and receive her kiss proudly.”
“We grow impatient,” Jussac thundered, outside their circle. “Will you save yourself or not, boy? Because if not, we’re coming to get you.”
The circle broke apart as though they had rehearsed, and the four of them faced the five guards.
“We’ve made a decision,” Athos said, his voice steady and calm.
“Oh,” Jussac said. “I hope it’s a sensible decision.”
“Very,” Athos said, and removed his hat, and bowed with a deep flourish. “We’re going to have the pleasure of charging you.”
Before the guard could snap shut the mouth that he’d let drop open in his astonishment, Athos’s hat was back on his head, and Porthos and Aramis had unsheathed their swords.
“One for all and all for one,” they shouted, as they fell on the guards.
By the rational odds of combat and war, they should have lost. There were but four of them, one of whom was severely wounded, and the other little more than a child.
D’Artagnan’s only experience of dueling had been his mock duels with his father, in the field behind their house, in the calm Gascon countryside.
If that duel had been decided on body count, or on experience, or even on the relative size of the opponents, surely the guards of the cardinal would have won.
But wars and duels are fought with the mind, the heart, and that other thing – that thing that is neither loyalty nor camaraderie, but which has hints of both.
That thing allowed D’Artagnan to know and come to the rescue when Athos’s breathing grew too labored. That thing allowed him to go away when Athos had recovered enough to resume his own battle.
And duels are also fought with pride and fear. The three musketeers were too proud to surrender, too fearful of Monsieur de Treville’s wrath to allow themselves to be arrested. They fought like fury unleashed.
Porthos fought and defeated two enemies at once.
And so, fifteen minutes later, the only one left standing of the small army of Cardinal Guards was de Brissac – like D’Artagnan, a Gascon, and like D’Artagnan, ill-suited to surrender. Surrounded by all the musketeers, he broke his own sword upon his knee to avoid losing it.
But then he gave up. He helped the musketeers and D’Artagnan take the wounded and dead to the convent’s door. And stayed behind with them, while the musketeers and D’Artagnan rang the bell and walked away.
Years later, D’Artagnan would try to recall the rest of the afternoon. All he would remember was Athos’s promising that he would show D’Artagnan the best taverns in Paris.
And then they’d gone to the Louis, where there were ten musketeers and where, when Porthos had told their story, people had rushed to buy them strong, sweet, fiery liquor. From there, they’d walked a block to The Maiden’s Head, where the seven musketeers present had listened to their story with awe. And then to The Head and Bucket, where, at the telling of their tale, musketeers and sympathizers had bought them a sparkling white wine.
D’Artagnan remembered there had been a pause between The Grinning Corpse and The Coup de Grace, while he leaned against a wall in an alley and lost most of the wine he’d drunk in the preceding hours.
But then they’d taken him to the Drinking Fish for a few mugs of house special, and from there to The Drunken Lord for something that tasted like liquid fire.
Night had fallen when D’Artagnan found himself stumbling along the back alleys and narrow staircases of the working-class neighborhoods of Paris, one arm thrown over Aramis’s shoulder, Porthos’s huge hand on his other shoulder, singing softly a song about the queen, the king and the musketeers that would surely be treason if they weren’t all drunk and all so loyal that they’d just risked their lives to ensure the king’s own musketeers suffered no defeat.
“We should take the boy home first,” Athos said. He had to be drunk. He’d drunk more of all the various liquors than all of them combined. He had to be dead drunk. But he walked steadily and his voice sounded, if anything, a little slower and calmer and more controlled.
Porthos giggled. “‘s right,” he said. “It is past the time schoolboys should be asleep.”
“Where do you live, D’Artagnan?” Aramis asked.
“Rue des Fossoyers,” D’Artagnan said, glad he’d rented lodgings before going in search of his fate outside the Barefoot Carmelites. Looking back it had been presumptuous to think he’d survive three duels. But, at least, he’d have a place to sleep tonight.
“Good,” Athos said. “That’s just around–”
He turned, as if to get his bearings, and as he turned, and they with him, they all saw a figure in the uniform of a musketeer cross the alley right in front of them.
“Oh, I say, wait,” Athos said. “Wait, friend. King’s Musketeer, hold. Have you heard that we defeated Jussac outside the Barefoot–”
The musketeer jumped, as if touched with hot iron, and took off running, the sound of his steps echoing and reverberating through the maze of narrow streets.
The musketeers stopped and frowned at the space where the unknown musketeer had been.
“That’s abominably rude,” Aramis said.
“Musketeer or no, someone should teach him some manners,” Porthos said.
“He should buy us a drink to make up for it,” Athos said. “After all, there must be a place still open.”
As one man, they ran, pursuing the fugitive. D’Artagnan followed the sound of their steps.
They ran down so many blind alleys, careened precipitously down so many worn staircases, that D’Artagnan was sure they’d never find the runaway musketeer. He’d be lucky if he didn’t get separated from his friends.
But at last, they all surged into an alley. And there, on the ground, the musketeer lay.
The three musketeers had been calling and jeering and laughing, but now all their noises stopped.
It was suddenly very quiet, in that alley. Far away, an owl hooted, chasing prey in some attic. D’Artagnan drew a deep breath that sounded too loud in the silence.
“It can’t be,” Aramis said, under his breath.
But though D’Artagnan had never seen a dead body, he knew the musketeer lying on the muddy, smelly ground of the alley was dead.
If asked, he could have given no more justification than a certain angle of the arm protruding from under the body and the stillness, the eerie stillness of whole body.
“He’s dead,” he said.
Aramis crossed himself and Athos stepped forward, towards the corpse.
The Many Complications of a Dead Musketeer; Where the Corpses of Queens are Different from the Corpses of Commoners; What One Owes the Dead.
Athos was suddenly, startlingly sober.
One moment he’d been laughing and running with his friends, his head muddled, his vision blurring scenes and places.
The next breath he was stone cold sober, standing in a narrow alley, his nose full of the stink of mud and the human waste that housewives daily emptied from their windows into the common street. His head hurt a little, with something that was not so much a hangover as the distant echo of a hangover. His shirt and hose stuck to him with dried sweat and felt prickly and cold against his skin. His tightly-laced doublet made his shoulder wound throb.
He lifted his hand and wiped his forehead. His side hurt with burning, insistent pain. The wound he’d received from Jussac the night before was still bleeding and perhaps starting to become infected.
Surely Athos’s reactions showed a touch of fever. Because he’d seen death many times. Death, in the battle field or in private brawl meant very little to French noblemen, used to and encouraged to quarrel over matters of honor, over matters of the heart, even over trivial matters.
It had been a long time since Athos had learned how quickly the flame of life could be extinguished in combat.
But it had been even longer since he’d seen the body of one killed dishonorably. A murdered corpse.
And, without being able to point to anything specifically, he was sure this man had indeed been murdered. There had hardly been time for him to challenge anyone, to engage in a duel with anyone.
Athos stepped forward, a prickle of uneasiness at the back of his neck. He knelt by the body, ignoring the smells that accompanied death.
The dead man must be very young — there was so little breadth to his shoulders. Short too, shorter than their new friend, D’Artagnan. The hair that escaped from the broad brimmed musketeer hat was as pale-white as moonlight.
And the light of the lantern hanging at the door to a tavern three doors down was enough to see that the left hand, extended to the side of the body — palm up as if in supplication — was white and pale and unmarred by calluses.
This meant that not only was the man young and, undoubtedly, had led such a sheltered life as only certain wealthy families could afford, but also that he’d been a musketeer for a very little time.
Because the wielding of the sword, the gripping of the oft ornamented pommel, the force necessary to parry and thrust with the blade, soon turned the hands of those sons of the nobility who made the sword their profession as callused, as blistered and as rough as the hands of any farmer’s son.
From beneath the neck, on the right side, a little pool of thick liquid — dark under the insufficient lighting — spread sluggishly on the muddy ground.
Athos put his hand on the back of the boy’s head. It felt warm still.
“Help me turn him,” Athos said.
Porthos stepped forward, put a hand on each of the boy’s shoulders and easily, like a boy turning a rag doll, flipped the body so it was face up.
In the effort, the hat went flying. Athos flinched as the corpse’s blue eyes appeared to stare at him.
It was not a boy, but a young woman.
She could be any age between sixteen and twenty, but Athos did not need to notice the gentle swell of breasts beneath the musketeer’s tunic to know that it was no man.
Her forehead was too smooth, her nose too small, slightly tilted up. Her eyes were too wide. Her lips too soft and pliable. Lips that would have made many a suitor tremble.
Her eyes looked puzzled, as if she couldn’t quite understand what had happened, and there was a small crease of worry on her white forehead.
Without thinking, Athos brought out his handkerchief from his sleeve and wiped the mud and blood from the side of her face. Then he gasped, in turn.
She looked like— It was—
He jumped back, unconsciously tracing the sign of the cross over his own forehead — not in the carefully deliberate way Aramis did it, but in the frantic way of a child warding off evil.
From either side of him, in Porthos’s booming tones and Aramis’s half-sighed ones, he heard the words his mind whispered. “The queen. It is the queen.”
Athos shook his head, reflexively. D’Artagnan pushed forward and stopped at the feet of the corpse, looking hesitant.
“It can’t be the queen,” Athos said. “It would never be the queen. What would our queen be doing here, in Musketeer attire, in the dark street?”
A half groan from Aramis answered him, a wordless crescendo of worry. It stopped fast and, without turning, Athos was sure his friend had bit his own tongue to stop the sound.
And then in a fearful whisper, because this wasn’t an antechamber or a salon where such things could be said and bandied as a joke, Aramis said, “It is said Buckingham is in town.”
“Aramis!” Porthos said.
Athos didn’t say anything. He hadn’t heard the rumors of Buckingham’s visit. But then he wouldn’t. Other than his two friends who knew better than to gossip to him, he spoke to very few people. Most of his days were spent in silence. Even his servant, Grimaud, had been taught to answer a gesture or an expression, which saved Athos the trouble of talking.
He’d joined the musketeers as other men would join a cloistered order. In fact, it was only the consciousness of being the last one of his noble line that had kept him from donning some russet habit and hiding forever in the dark bowels of a monastery. That, and the memory of his sin.
Looking at this dead woman now, brought his sin to mind again. The thought of another woman he’d seen dead. His wife. His… wife.
He ran his hand over his forehead and eyes, as if by doing so he could remove the veil of the past and the thoughts he didn’t want to think.
“I only say what I have heard,” Aramis said defensively.
“Yes, but there are things that shouldn’t be said,” Porthos answered, his booming voice trying to control itself into a hiss and therefore hissing and booming, both uncontrollably.
Athos knew that if he didn’t intervene, his two friends, so close despite being diametrical opposites, would engage in an endless round of bickering. He often ignored such behavior while the three of them were out drinking.
He could not ignore it now. Aramis’s certainty and Porthos’s censure grated on his nerves like fingernails drawn, shrieking, down a blackboard.
“Well, she might be the queen,” Aramis said. “But she is also human. We are all fallen creatures and it is said that the king avoids her.”
They were standing in front of a corpse that might be that of the queen of France. They were standing at the feet of someone dead by violence and stealth. And yet Aramis and Porthos would bicker as usual.
“Well, a fallen creature she might be, but she’s also a queen and as a queen and at that the—”
“Silence,” Athos removed his hat, held it at his chest, an insufficient but needed gesture of respect for these remains. “Silence.”
At his words, the others fell silent and removed their hats also.
Athos struggled for words. As a child, he’d been outspoken, fluent. Often he’d filled his afternoons with poetry.
But in the last ten years he’d tried to silence all his words — internal as well as external. The fewer the words, the less they would reproach him and the less he would think of the crime that had sent him fleeing his earldom, his nobility, his responsibilities as a lord to don a musketeer’s uniform and an assumed name. The less he spoke, the less he would think.
Or at least, that had been the theory. In fact, the things he refused to name and speak of often visited him in blood-soaked dreams that woke him, sweat-drenched and screaming, in the middle of the night.
Yet, silence had now become a habit, a turn of mind, a form of thought. It took him several moments to collect his words.
When they came, they came slowly to his tongue, like children who, once chased from a garden, hesitate to return and play there. “It matters not,” he said. “Why the queen would be abroad in this attire, if this is the queen. There are reasons…” He hesitated and his eloquence floundered. “We don’t need to know why, nor do we need to speak about it. Things said in jest are excusable. The same things said in earnest are treason.”
Around him, his friends were so quiet that he could hear, streets away, the solitary footsteps of lone passerby.
“But if it is the queen,” D’Artagnan said, in a whisper. “If it is the queen, then treason is the least of our worries.”
Athos looked to the young man and met with a keen understanding and deep worry in the observant gaze.
He nodded, in response. “Yes,” he said.
“I don’t have the pleasure of understanding either of you,” Aramis cut in. “You speak in riddles.”
Athos turned towards his blond friend. Aramis was not a stupid man. Neither was Porthos, though often the way they reasoned could give the impression of stupidity. Athos could not be bothered with stupid people, and he’d chosen friends he thought his intellectual equals.
But Aramis’s intellect was so bound up with his upbringing — by a widowed, elderly mother who wanted only to get him into the church — that he thought as theologians argued: in circles and whorls, through labyrinths and twisting paths that arrived at the truth by a totally circuitous route. Aramis often had trouble seeing what hadn’t been stated several times over, in different ways and half of it in Latin.
Porthos too, a man who reasoned with his huge hands and his overdeveloped senses, would not immediately leap from the idea of this dead body in an alley to the trouble that would ensue in the world at large if this were, indeed, the queen of France.
Porthos, the direct man of action, found words a slippery adversary who wouldn’t meet him openly.
Athos sighed. Again he rubbed his forehead with his fingertips. Sober, he might be. Startlingly and suddenly sober. But the alcohol he’d drunk remained with him — a dull ache behind the eyes, a confusion of the tongue. “I meant that if this is the queen and she is dead, the world will tremble for this. Our king will say she was out for unknown motives, probably dishonorable, and that no one can ever find out who killed her. Her relatives abroad, though — her very powerful relatives, the Hapsburg Emperor, her brother, and her cousins and siblings, in the various thrones of Europe — will not be satisfied. They’ll say our own king contrived her death.” Athos shook his head, unwilling to speak further of all the things that could be said in this regard. “And then there is, as Aramis mentioned, Buckingham. He too is unlikely to believe the queen’s death was a murder committed by a mere footpad. He will want revenge. All of them will. There will be war.”
“Let them make war, then,” Porthos growled. “They will break their teeth on the nut of France.”
“Shhhh,” Aramis said.
And Athos looked around, at the still closed windows of the upper floors, at the deserted street, the lantern burning out the last of its oil in front of the tavern two doors down. Aramis was right. All the merchants in the street might be asleep, snug in their beds over their shops. But make enough noise and they would wake. And if they wakened…. If they wakened, the scandal would be out in the open.
“She looks younger than the queen,” D’Artagnan said. He blushed furiously as Athos looked back at him. “I know all I’ve seen of the queen are woodcuts and a portrait, once. But this woman looks like she can’t be twenty, yet.”
Athos grunted. He knelt and examined, as closely as the tavern light allowed, the small, white, flawless hands, and the corners of the eyes of the corpse.
He rose, shaking his head. “I can’t tell for sure,” he said. “She looks somewhat younger than our queen, that is true. But then, our queen has led a sheltered life. And she has no children. Both of these can make a woman look younger than she truly is. And then, I’ve never been that close to her majesty, though I’ve often seen her at court.”
Porthos sighed. “Well, well,” he said. “I’ll go alert the guard then, right? No use us going on like this.”
Aramis gasped. “Porthos, I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again. You can be a fool.”
“A fool? I? How?”
And there, they would be off on another round of the endless bickering that they enjoyed as much as other men enjoyed chess games.
“He’s not a fool,” Athos cut in. “He’s simply not seeing the whole thing. If the murder of Anne of Austria leads to an invasion of our country, what are we as men of honor and musketeers to do?”
“Defend France,” Porthos said.
“Exactly. But, Porthos, by the time the armies of Europe converge on us it might be a little late to defend our country.”
There was a silence. “Er…,” Porthos said. “Er…how are we supposed to defend France, then?”
“By stealth,” the young man, D’Artagnan, said. “By not telling anyone who this woman is, or that we found her, or that she’s been murdered. By hiding the murder.”
“That’s despicable,” Porthos said. “To hide a murder and let the murderer go free?”
“Hush, Porthos,” Athos said. “No one said anything about letting the murderer go free, but our friend the Gascon seems to know my mind better than I do, so I’ll let him speak.”
D’Artagnan looked up at him, and he met the gaze with a half-smile. The small man straightened himself in response, and turned away from the corpse, to face the other two musketeers. His hat, carefully clutched to his chest, was of an uncertain color between blue and black — as if the fabric had suffered one too many colorings. The two plumes were broken and half-bald, as if they had been played with by countless generations of toddlers.
“The thing is, if we say nothing and investigate the murder, then when we know who the murderer is, we can present it to someone — Monsieur de Treville, for example — who will then present it to the king. With proof and a well-reasoned explanation. So that when the king announces her majesty’s death to the crowned heads of Europe, he will be in a position to prove he did not cause her demise.”
“Exactly,” Athos said, relieved he didn’t have to find the words to explain it. “Exactly what I was thinking.”
Porthos sighed. “But we’ll have to hide the body. For…days.”
Aramis sighed. “I know a man,” he said.
Athos smiled, but managed not to say that this was strange as, in fact, Aramis normally knew women.
Aramis glared at Athos, as if he knew the thought that had crossed his friends’ mind. “He is a curate in a little church near here, in the street of the Holy Martyrs. He has a cellar… Where he often keeps the bodies of people who die in Paris and whose relatives will come from the provinces to fetch them for burial. Or people whose names and relatives no one knows. He keeps them a while and if they’re not claimed, he pays for their burial himself. I suppose if the curate were another person, of different means, his basement would be a wine cellar, for it keeps amazingly cold even in this heat. And he keeps the bodies in coffins. All that could be holy and proper. It is his ministry, his vocation. Just as I feel that mine is to preach to those too comfortable in their sphere and with their wealth….”
Athos nodded, forbearing to say anything about the methods Aramis used for that preaching. Aramis seemed to first demonstrate the sin so he could more easily bring the lady — it was always a lady — to repentance. “That would do,” he said. “Yes, that would do, handsomely.”
“But we’d share a dreadful secret,” Porthos said.
“And have we not in the past?” Athos asked. His friends nodded. D’Artagnan, their new acquaintance, looked wide-eyed at them, but said nothing.
“Well, then,” Aramis said. “I live close by. I’ll go home and send my servant, Bazin, with a message for my friend, the curate, to come with his wheelbarrow to collect the corpse, shall I?”
“Yes,” Athos said. “That would be—”
“No.” It was D’Artagnan, his voice full of urgency. “No,” he continued as all of them turned to look at him.
“You don’t want us to solve this murder?” Athos asked.
“You don’t want us to hide the body?” Aramis asked.
“You are too cowardly to aid in this?” Porthos asked.
D’Artagnan shook his head. He looked from one to the other of them but, at last, he faced Athos.
Athos felt as if the young man wanted to talk to him alone, as though having decided that Athos was the most likely to understand him. Or perhaps the least likely to shout him into silence or cast aspersions on his courage.
Athos smiled a little, in encouragement, and the young man took a deep breath.
“What I meant,” D’Artagnan said. “Is that before we do this, there is something else we must decide. What if this isn’t the queen? What if she’s just someone who died because she resembled the queen? Or someone who was killed by a jealous lover, or a controlling husband, or a refused suitor?” He took another deep breath, and looked around at them.
Athos, confused as to why this mattered, was sure that D’Artagnan met with equally blank expressions from Aramis and Porthos.
D’Artagnan sighed. “Like this,” he said. “If this woman was murdered for some reason that has nothing to do with the king or the security of France, we’re doing her a disservice by hiding her body. It might be some time before her murder is revealed to the guard and even a few hours might allow the murderer to get away.”
“But…,” Athos hesitated, not knowing how to explain it to the youth. “Surely the security of France—”
“Yes,” D’Artagnan said, impatiently. “Yes, but… There is this woman too. If she’s neither the queen, nor murdered because she looks like the queen, then we should let the law catch her murderer. If we don’t, we’re wronging this woman.” He gestured broadly towards the corpse.
“Oh,” Athos said, understanding it. Into his mind crept the memory of another unavenged murder — a countess of France left swinging from a low branch in the forest, her murderer unpunished. “Oh,” he said. “I think I see your meaning. If we hide this body, we’re committing ourselves to solving this murder, whoever the victim is.”
He looked around at Aramis and Porthos. “Do you understand?”
Surprisingly Porthos nodded, one second before Aramis.
He swallowed, audibly. “It would be damnable,” he said, “to leave this woman’s murderer free and unpunished.”
“Yes,” Aramis said.
“Yes,” Athos said, wondering if her ghost would join the other by his bed, in the middle of the night. “Assuredly, D’Artagnan. You have the right of it. We will investigate this murder, no matter who the victim is.”
“Or the murderer,” Porthos said.
Athos looked towards him, wondering what was in his friends’ mind. But Porthos’s blue-grey eyes were unreadable. Athos inclined his head. A half nod. “Or the murderer,” he said.
Before he quite knew what he was about, he pulled his sword out and extended it over the corpse. A salute of sorts.
The Gascon seemed to understand what Athos was doing and pulled out his sword, holding it so that the tip just touched Athos’s. Aramis was next. And then Porthos.
“On our honor as gentlemen and musketeers,” Athos said. “We will find this woman’s murderer. Whether the woman be a queen or a beggar, we will see justice done,” he said.
“One for all,” Aramis said.
“And all for one,” the others completed in a chorus.
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